valisI finished reading VALIS.  This is a 1981 novel by Philip K. Dick.  The title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, Dick’s gnostic vision of one aspect of God.  The edition I read is the 1991 Vintage Books edition.

This is the first novel by Dick that I have actually read.  I know plenty of/about/by PKD, but this was the first time I owned a novel and read it through.  I have to say it was somewhat just as I expected it to be. PKD is one of those “tortured genius” types – I do not have the authority to speak on his personal experiences.  Maybe he was completely mentally insane.  Maybe he had religious epiphanies. Maybe he was just a cooky, oddball. I don’t know.

What I do know is that he is a really good author.  This particular novel is less “science fiction” than a memoir/thesis.  You can feel with each page that it is Dick trying to work out his experience via the medium of fiction.  It’s actually quite impressive. I feel that dozens of authors try to be pondersome and meta- but they try too hard or are too fake about it.  This book by PKD seems full of honesty.  It does not seem purposefully obscure or meta-.  PKD is an excellent writer – the topic, plot, and characters in this book are actually kind of crappy. But his writing is so honest, inviting, and open that I enjoyed reading the book just to have the joy of reading the writing.

The content is very unique.  If you are not comfortable with Gnosticism, schizophrenia, drugs, or death – this book is going to make you really hate it.  And if you are unfamiliar with Christianity – forget it, you’re really going to abhor the book.  Now, there are plenty of novels wherein the usage of drugs is glorified or the ruminations on death are obnoxious.  That is not the case with this book.  This book is actually a seeking of answers, of goodness, and a quest for peace of mind.  PKD is definitely a bit nuts – but he’s sharing it all and completely opening himself to everyone in this book.  He’s not hiding or lying – the honesty and struggle are in plain sight.  In some ways, I pity PKD, he was so befuddled and perplexed, but I suspect he had a good heart, as they say.

He wasn’t just theory-mongering for the sake of it; he was trying to figure out what the f*** happened to him.  – chapter 7, pg. 106

There isn’t much of a plot at all. It’s a thin bunch of characters, plotting, and storyline.  Maybe there’s no plot because the book, really, is just a stream of consciousness of PKD wrestling with his diaries and thoughts.  There are definitely parts in the book which are utter madness and confusion.  I am comfortable in philosophy and history and theology and even I had some struggle with certain paragraphs. I have no idea what PKD was writing.  Some times this came across as PKD just playing with words and maybe his whole effort was just to find new religious concepts and make an eclectic mess of whatever he runs across.  On the other hand, he is also surprisingly self-critical.  Particularly in the first half of chapter 14.  So, while PKD might sound crazy – he knows he does and he’s still wrestling with the fact.  I have a feeling that if you enjoyed Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, you might be interested in this. They are not the same genre, but there are themes that are similar. The eclectic collection of obscurantism is what makes me think the two are similar.  In any case, VALIS is not to be read for plot, but for the actual writing and maybe if a reader wants to get to know PKD.

3 stars

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